The Rebirth of Hebrew Literature

by Yigal Schwartz (Author)
©2016 Monographs 178 Pages


The book invites readers to a reexamination of Modern Hebrew literature and culture from complementary critical perspectives, through readings of texts from this corpus. Among the issues explored are the Eastern European Jewish and Central European Jewish versions of this literature and their battle for cultural hegemony; the narrative of rebirth, which requires a transitional, «pagan» developmental phase in which man and nation are united through «primitive texts»; the challenges of literary «occupied territory» and the «ghost language», Hebrew, with its religious «baggage»; and South America on the map of recent Israeli literature.

Table Of Contents

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When I was a boy, my mother, who grew up in Budapest in an assimilated Jewish home in the years before World War II, said to me, “You know, the Hungarian Jews—Herzl and Nordau—are the ones who invented Zionism, but when we came to Israel, we discovered that the Russian and Polish Jews, who arrived before we did, had already taken everything over: the government, the Knesset, the Histadrut (Israel’s organization of trade unions). What not? And then what could we do? Only look from the side and laugh at everything.” “And that is why,” she went on, “all the satirists and political cartoonists in the country were Hungarian: Yosef (Tommy) Lapid, Dosh, Kishon, and Ze’ev—all of them.”

My mother, may her memory be a blessing, was not an especially reliable historical source. But I assimilated the things that she repeated many times and in various versions. I grew up with the sense that the Ashkenazim did not all belong to exactly the same “community,” in contrast to what I understood from my “integrated” public school, which was attended by representatives of all the Jewish communities of the Diaspora, which were divided “naturally” into Ashkenazim and Mizrahim. As my mother’s testimony indicated, my parents’ “community”—my father also came from Hungary, but from a family of Satmar Hasidim (making him doubtfully Hungarian in my mother’s eyes)—did not achieve the status it deserved, that is, its cultural, social, and political achievements were appropriated or minimized by another, stronger, and more organized “community.”

This insight, or perhaps more accurately, this sensitivity, accompanied me for many years, and is evident in my academic writings. For example, I have dedicated a great deal of study to the work of Aharon Appelfeld, who is, I believe, the most important “Austro-Hungarian” Hebrew writer of the second half of the twentieth century. This insight and sensitivity are also expressed in my taste as an editor, for example, in my great love of Yoel Hoffman and his oeuvre.

In the first chapter of this book, I made, for the first time in my life, an attempt to seriously examine this insight and/or sensitivity. I attempted to clarify whether it is possible to speak of Eastern European Jews as belonging to two different societies or communities. At the same time, and assuming that the issues are interrelated, I tried to determine whether it is possible to speak of two distinct literary styles: an Eastern European Jewish style and a Central European Jewish style. In addition, I attempted to understand why these questions, and subsequently, the (positive) answers to them, which, as I discovered in the research I conducted, formed the foundation of the Jewish cultural discourse in Europe in ← 7 | 8 → the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, hardly featured in the writings of the major historiographers of Modern Hebrew literature. And, accordingly, I tried to understand why, since the second decade of the twentieth century, most critics and scholars have placed the Austro-Hungarian Jewish writers in a marginal position in relation to their Eastern European brethren without, “of course,” being explicitly required to explain the “ethnic” and/or “intellectual” reason for this decision, but, at most, hinting at it using alternative concepts.

I suppose there will be those who read this chapter and perhaps the other chapters in this book and accuse me of taking an essentialist approach. In this context, I would like to make some clear statements from the start. The anti-essentialist approach is all well and good, in my opinion, as an ethos, or, in other words, as a code of basic ethical guidelines. Moreover, in my opinion, the critical strategy derived from it, which aims to point out every site where cultural construction poses as a natural phenomenon, to dismantle its mechanism of impersonation, and to reveal the aggressive motives it serves, is of the utmost importance.

However, this does not mean that we need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. The fact that cultural patterns displayed as natural phenomena are the products of mechanisms of control does not mean, in any way, that it is impossible to talk about the unique characteristics of different groups of people, characteristics that define their identities as individuals and as groups. It is possible to talk about an “intellectual dominant” or a “stylistic dominant” (in the Jakobsonian sense) and so on. It is possible and necessary, since, if we avoid doing so, we confine our field of vision to a limited spectrum of phenomena, turning the colorful, variegated world into a dull and intimidating X-ray image. This is, of course, under the condition that we refrain, as far as possible—and here there is no “always,” since “always” is a word used by purists, who are not among those who love people of all varieties—from organizing the many phenomena observed into a system of value judgments based on any kind of hierarchical thinking. In other words, I wish to adopt from the anti-essentialist approach its sensitivity to Others without its typical tendency to eschew phenomena that have any sort of “color.” And this is precisely out of respect for the Others. I hope and believe that this middle ground, from which I have chosen to discuss the issue of the Ashkenazim, has allowed me to open a window to a renewed examination of an important part of the fascinating history of Modern Hebrew literature.

In the other three chapters of this book as well, I attempted to open a window to a renewed examination of additional important and intriguing chapters of the history of Modern Hebrew literature. In the second chapter, I point to what I see as the central mission most of the Jewish writers in modern times took upon themselves: to create the “rebirth” of the Hebrew nation, and attempt to describe the ← 8 | 9 → key mechanism that served them in this task, its various characteristics, and some of its implications. In the third chapter, I discuss the unique features of Modern Hebrew literature among modern national literatures in general and among the national literatures of settlers/immigrants in particular, and the challenges these features presented to Hebrew writers, especially those who came to Israel in the first half of the twentieth century. In the fourth chapter, I address, or begin to address, what I consider a fruitful field of research: the map of the imagination of Israeli literature, as it is revealed through the changing status of different regions of the world about which Hebrew authors have written. As a test case I chose South America, a province that was “a place of significance” in Zionist history, and has recently returned in the writings of Israeli authors.

A very prominent common feature of all the chapters in this book is their dialogical “status.” These are four invitations to open a discussion, not to exhaust it, and certainly not to conclude it. My discussions of the Ashkenazim, with both of their intellectual-stylistic camps, in the narrative of rebirth, the issue of (late) homecoming in Revival literature, and the place of the South American province on the map of the Israeli imagination comprise a kind of initial marking of runways from which it is possible to take off, adding to the dozens of runways already marked and paved, and from which it would be possible, perhaps, to set out on renewed tours of Jewish and Israeli “literature and life.”

I would like to thank all those who helped me in my work: the students of the research group in the Department of Hebrew Literature at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in 2011–2012: Irit Ronen, Ron Lasry, Yael Rubin-Shinhar, Moriah Dayan Kodish, Dekel Shai Schori, and Nirith Korman. Many thanks go to Ravit Levin, Administrative Director of Heksherim Institute for Jewish and Israeli Literature and Culture at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, for her hard work and support in all matters large and small. Thanks to my friends and colleagues who made important and useful comments: Ruth Kartun-Blum, Amos Oz, Avidov Lipsker-Albeck, Nili Scharf Gold, Shira Stav, Sylvia Fuchs-Fried, Shimon Adaf, Leah Aini, and Chen Shtrass. Anat Weisman deserves special thanks. I pestered her frequently with various and sundry questions, and she generously contributed her keen intelligence and rare sense of proportion. Thanks also to Avner Holtzman, who read the manuscript in several incarnations, for his usual profound, thorough, and responsible reading. He enlightened me on a number of issues, and spared me some embarrassing inaccuracies. I want to express my sincere thanks to Dr. Hannah Komy, who diligently translated the book with great sensitivity, skill, and dedication, as though it were her own. I also thank Ute Winkelkoetter, who published the book with skill and pleasantness worthy of emulation. ← 9 | 10 →

Finally, I want to thank my friends, who encouraged and supported me, my amazing children, Ben, Yoav, and Zohar, and the Peretz family, who have taken me into their home and their hearts, and my wife and beloved, Galit, who created for me a perfect space for creativity.

Neve Shalom, July 2013

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Chapter One: The Ashkenazim: The Center vs. The East

An Invitation to an Intellectual-Stylistic Discussion of Modern Hebrew Literature

A Prayer for the Wellbeing of the King

May He Who grants salvation to kings and dominion to rulers


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (November)
Eastern European Jewish Literature Israeli Literature Central European Jewish Literature
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 178 pp.

Biographical notes

Yigal Schwartz (Author)

Yigal Schwartz is Director of the Heksherim Research Institute for Jewish and Israeli Literature and Culture at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He is also senior editor at Kinneret Zmora Dvir Publishing.


Title: The Rebirth of Hebrew Literature